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Michael Bell
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Posted By Michael Bell

I doubt that Count Dracula loses any sleep worrying that his influence on the field of fictional vampires will be eclipsed any time soon by that of Mercy Brown. But there is a growing body of fiction that is based explicitly on the New England vampire tradition and, more specifically, the exhumation of Mercy Brown in 1892. Two authors, at least, have succeeded in integrating this tradition’s supernatural elements into their stories in ways that move the plot along and provide the twists that are necessary for this genre of fiction without totally dominating the narrative or sending it careening off into weird places. I am personally very uncomfortable when the supernatural is not reasonable. By definition, I suppose, it cannot be rational. However, those who have more than a superficial understanding of folk belief systems grasp that these systems have their own logic and rules of order that render them reasonable and predictable. In my view, the heart of my task as a folklorist who specializes in belief systems is to understand and explicate their reasonableness. I don’t necessarily have to condone them or believe in them, myself, of course.

Full disclosure: I ordinarily do not read contemporary vampire fiction. The few works that I have read by well-established authors in this genre generally have succeeded in irritating me. I was asked to read and comment on advanced copies of the two works I discuss here. If all they had done is irritate me, I would not be commenting on them now.

Mercy: The Last New England Vampire by Sarah Thomson (Islandport Press: release date is September 2011). Following is the publisher’s description of this young adult novel: “Middle-grade readers will easily identify with the modern-day narrator, Haley Brown, a 14-year-old girl who's struggling to cope with a new stepmom and baby brother. Distracted by a beloved cousin’s terminal illness, her grades start to drop. Then, the boy she has a crush on starts dating her best friend. When Haley digs deep into her family history for a school project, she uncovers a disturbing New England tradition and a ghostly past. Haley must overcome doubts and confront a vampire in order to save herself and her family. Thomson’s gifts as a storyteller and writer make Mercy an exciting coming of age story about loss and family.”

In this book that is explicitly inspired by the story of Mercy Brown, I think that Thomson got it right. Unlike so many other young adult vampire novels that cannot escape the fanged shadow of the fictional Dracula, Mercy is firmly grounded in the regional historical reality of vampires. It is clear that the novel’s main character, Haley, understands that Mercy was a scapegoat and that it was fear of a mystifying illness that drove Mercy’s family to perform a horrific ritual. As Haley so poignantly says of Mercy, “this wasn’t a horror move. . . . It was her life.” While I don’t want to reveal too much about how the plot turns, I need to say, thank God Mercy DIDN'T have a sister named Patience.

Next, a novel that is the first of a series based on New England’s vampire tradition.

2 Comment(s):
Michael Bell said...
Your book was spellbinding, Sarah, maybe in part because I am so aware of the historical and cultural contexts. I'm happy you liked Food for the Dead and found it an inspiration for your work. As for reasonableness - it's always there in real life, but sometimes it takes a lot of looking and thinking. Authors in these genres of nonfiction do well, as you suggest, remembering that.
April 21, 2011 01:31:47
Sarah L. Thomson said...
"I am personally very uncomfortable when the supernatural is not reasonable." Michael, I think I will print that out and pin it to my bulletin board as a touchstone for my fantasy writing. Thank you for your kind words about Mercy and for the the resource and inspiration you provided in Food for the Dead! --Sarah
April 21, 2011 01:22:59
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